Emerald Isle

Winter solstice

Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales tales of Ireland

Winter solstice

The winter solstice is the shortest day of the year, and the people of old Ireland called it Grianstad, or the day of the stopped sun. The solstice festival and celebrations date back at least six thousand years, but may go even further back - we can guess their age for them because many of the megaliths constructed by the Neolithic Irish are aligned with the solstice.

The most famous place aligned with the winter solstice light is at Newgrange, or Sí an Bhrú, where lambent golden rays of sunlight glimmer through a roof-space and illuminate the mysterious engravings engraved into mighty stones at the back of the tomb, if tomb it truly was. The genius and skill of the builders of Newgrange is demonstrated by the enduring power of their vision, as astonishing today as it was millennia ago.

Numerous other monuments are connected to the winter solstice, such as Drumbeg Stone Circle in Cork, Carrowkeel Cairns in Sligo, Beltany Tops Stone Circle in Donegal, Hill of Tara in Meath and Knockroe passage tomb in Kilkenny. There is also the highest known surviving passage tomb in Ireland on top of Slieve Gullion hill in Armagh, six thousand years old and yet still perfectly in line with the winter solstice.

The winter solstice would have been a very important time of year for the first farming communities in Ireland, since it signalled the beginning of the end of the encroaching cold and darkness and the rebirth of a new year. There would have been great feasts and bonfires, dancing and drinking, as well as spiritual ceremonies. Some have associated this transition with a mythical battle between holly and oak, or between ancient heroes of the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fomorians, but whatever they believed, we have yet to decipher the engravings and rock art associated with this magical event.

Newgrange is marked on the map below!

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